Jacoby Ellsbury broke back on the long drive by Robert Andino, full speed, dead center. He’s done this before. He’s made this catch before. On the dead sprint, Ellsbury closes in on the fading white and red sphere, gauging it’s eventual decline, knowing he can make the play. The ball, falling short of it’s ultimate target beyond the center field fence, finds it’s way into Ellsbury’s glove. Two runners were on, two were out. The inning was over. Then, in a sudden impact that seemed to surprise the astute Ellsbury, everything changed.
The impact of player to wall wasn’t immense. It wasn’t violent or even enough to generate a minor injury. It was, however, enough to put the Red Sox season on the brink. As the baseball fell to the green Maryland grass, the Red Sox 2011 season took yet another inauspicious turn for the worse. All three runs scored. Andino was credited with an inside-the-park home run and the Orioles, who had just tied the game through the means of a Vladimir Guerrero single, Mark Reynolds walk and Chris Davis double, now took a four run lead with three innings to play.
Jacoby Ellsbury didn’t make the play. Our MVP, possibly thee American League MVP, couldn’t hold on to that baseball. A ball with insides that, once peeled open, could unravel just as quickly as the Red Sox season. Was that play the figurative encapsulation of the 2011 Red Sox; going hard after their goal, seemingly having it withing their grasps, but ultimately being hit by a force so strong, yet at the same time, so slight, that only the baseball gods themselves could conjure up it’s delicate violence?
Baseball gods? That might seem like an odd comment coming from a writer that bases most opinions on sabermetrics and scouting. But, then again, given the Sox’ current standing and the impending apocalypse of Red Sox Nation should they complete their historic collapse, perhaps the religion of baseball is actually at the forefront of this story.
You see, what has happened to the Red Sox goes beyond the numbers. After all, they’re on the verge of winning 90 games, even with a tailspin September. They have two of the top 15 pitchers in the American League according to FanGraphs‘ version of wins above replacement (fWAR). They have one of the best eighth and ninth innings duo’s in the game (not to mention Alfredo Aceves in the seventh) and their offense has been the most prolific in baseball, having scored the most runs of any team this season.
With all that has gone right, how could this season go so wrong?
Normally, when you have a team with two number one starters, a lock-down back end of the bullpen and an offense that outperforms all others, you have a recipe for a World Series contender. Normally, however, such a team would also have at the very least a serviceable third, fourth and fifth starter backing up the two studs at the top. Obviously — as the stories of Theo Epstien’s inept ability to secure a solid back end of the rotation have been relentlessly dragged through the streets of Boston over the last month — we know that such has not been the case in 2011. Yes, this team’s problems have been well documented. Yes, this team is on the brink of letting their fans, city and themselves down. But all is not lost yet.
Aside, I ask where is the accountability for these suddenly cryptic writers? Those who praised Theo’s offseason and predicted World Series glory. Those who coasted through the summer writing of winning streaks and possible post season matchups. They are allowed to write about how the Sox don’t deserve to be in the playoffs and point their squirrely fingers at whomever they chose, but why are they not called to the stand to confess their inability to foresee such a collapse? I was right there too. I gleamed at the potential for something special with this Red Sox team back in April. Have I been critical at times? Sure, we all have to be now and again, but I’m certainly not going to type out words that call for the damnation of those I entrusted a mere six months ago.
The game of baseball is not about losing hope, even when it seems that all hope is lost. Baseball’s best moments are delivered when a team seemingly has no hope at all. People don’t talk about World Series sweeps or a team running away with the division. No, they talk about the comebacks, the perseverance of a team that lies dead in the water, but rises to victory with one final gasp for air. History will never forget the 2004 ALCS and the Red Sox, who at one point had pinned all their faith on a pinch runner named Dave Roberts.
Baseball is great because of what is happening in the AL Wild Card race, even if it makes Red Sox fans want to tear their hearts out. If the Sox can manage to fend off the Rays, Red Sox Nation will rejoice, if only for a little while. After what has happened to this team this season, that might actually be enough. And, if they lose, there is sure to be the apocalyptic crowd that storms the streets, torches in hand.
We can go back and forth forever, pointing fingers and laying the blame on those we praised not long ago. Or, we can just accept that it is what it is. The Yankees struck gold with their makeshift rotation this year, but if you were to play out next year with the same pitchers, I’m willing to bet that they don’t find near as much success. You can already see how worried Yankees fans are with their potential playoff rotation. On the other hand, the Sox got hammered with injuries, most costly perhaps the back injury of Clay Buchholz, which has limited him to 82.2 innings this season. Avoid that injury and we’re probably talking about setting up the playoff rotation, rather than trying to figure out who starts after Erik Bedard with the season on the line.
When that baseball popped from Jacoby Ellsbury’s grasps last night, it fell in slow motion. Red Sox fans across the nation held out their hands in an attempt to aide in the putout. I say keep reaching. Keep supporting this team that is playing bruised and battered, trying mightily to bring a postseason to the Boston faithful. If you don’t believe that they want this, if you don’t believe they’re trying with every ounce of their being, you’ve missed the point. If that’s the case, start the apocalypse now, as you’ve already lost.